Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sensitive Modernism, Part II (sort of): Lost Girls

in which I don't really talk about modernism, but do continue to talk about girl heroines -- not least because I'm re-reading Jane Eyre.

Which is not my favourite Charlotte Brontë novel. Like Adrienne Rich, I love Villette, and I've recently started to wonder if that's because it's set in a school -- and also features far less romantic swooning. My favourite bit of Jane Eyre covers Jane's early years at Lowood and I'm always strangely disappointed when they're over and it's off to Thornfield. Villette is the school novel plus (or ne plus ultra), because the heroine, Lucy Snowe, is young enough to be a student (almost) and yet has the independence of being a teacher (sort of). It's hovery and liminal and all about how learning to write essays in German makes you sexy.

Which is not to say that academic smarts are the only kind of good I look for in a feisty protagonist. Lucy's brains are combined with a wily and resilient ability to stand up for herself while appearing meek and mild: in the end, like the Mounties, she (almost) gets her man, and - more importantly to me - certainly gets a room of her own. She's also, unusually for the female protagonist of a Victorian novel, a traveller, even if she only gets as far as Brussels.

That wildness and mobility is rarely given to female protagonists before the twentieth century, and even now in books, girls tend to stay at home while boys roam; in fact, all five books on this year's Carnegie list are about wandering lads. That's why I was so struck by three YA books that I read recently: Siobhan O'Dowd's gorgeous Solace of the Road (reviewed by Bookwitch), The Beguilers by Kate Thompson, and Celia Rees' gripping The Stone Testament.

Last first: I picked up The Stone Testament because I was charmed and compelled by Rees' previous novels - Witch, Sorceress and The Wish House - for their bold protagonists whose voices remain etched on my mind. The Stone Testament is different because it has multiple protagonists (sometimes inhabiting different personae) whose voices criss-cross, which is something that I generally enjoy in a novel -- but I felt lost here, not least because I missed the strength and credibility that the single narrator gave to her earlier books (OK, Sorceress has two, but one is a frame narrative and the other a continuation from Witch, so it seems more balanced and coherent).

That's one of the strengths of Kate Thompson's writing as well, and I liked Rilka, the defiantly different heroine of The Beguilers. The pre-technological culture that Thompson imagines reminded me of Ursula Le Guin's current Annals of the Western Shore series and of Lois Lowry's Giver trilogy: it is deceptively attractive in its simplicity, but socially rigid. So Rilka, who knows her own mind and doesn't fit in, would win the sympathy of any reader even if she didn't set herself an impossible task. The gorgeous fable-like feel of the story gets a bit lost in detail when Rilka's quest reaches its climax, and the ending seemed pretty short shrift to me -- perhaps if the idea had been able to expand into a series, like Lowry's or Le Guin's, its emotional richness could have been played out. And I would have returned to hear more of Rilka's voice as she addressed herself to solving problems by looking from the outside in.

Rees' young protagonists are in the same position, and I did like them exactly for their wits. They were rebels with a cause; Rees cleverly shows how Kris's street smarts -- his knowledge of how to navigate his estate both socially and geographically, for example -- become essential in saving the world. Like Will in His Dark Materials, Adam, Zillah and Kris are all young people with experience beyond their years, gained from lives that seem like fictional inventions but represent the experiences of thousands of adolescents: all of them have lost their parents, all of them navigate dangerous worlds where no-one cares for them. Kris and Zillah have both lived on the streets; Zillah has survived a war in another country and become an illegal immigrant in the UK. These are lives that fascinate me, and I felt that Zillah's story was lost amidst the epic world-saveage.

Not so Holly Hogan's in Solace of the Road. Holly -- who becomes Solace when she puts on a wig stolen from her foster-mother -- is girl after J.T. Leroy's (or Kathy Acker's) heart, an adolescent Genet pickpocketing her way across England and Wales to catch the ferry home to Ireland. Possessed of an immense imagination and a skin so thick it's cracking, Holly is a magnificent creation whom O'Dowd coolly parallels with that other courageous orphan, Jane Eyre. Holly's reading the novel in school (well, when she goes to school) and doesn't think much of the wimpy heroine. Holly would have married Rochester for the money, and never would have left her jewels on the train. But the further she travels, the more like Jane she becomes.

Holly also crosses paths with Pullman's Lyra Silvertongue; like Lyra, Holly spends her day in Oxford visiting a museum (which, she concludes, is full of dead things) and at the cinema, as well as lying and charming her way around the city. She is as much out of the world of colleges and students as Lyra is out of place amidst the hot dogs and buses. Like Lyra, she finds that lying extravagantly about her parents and her past carries her a long way on her quest -- but only so far. When facing death (like Lyra in The Amber Spyglass), she finds the courage to tell the truth from her heart, and is released.

There's a delicate and fascinating conversation going on between Solace and HDM (Oxford is also where David Fickling, editor to both Pullman and O'Dowd, has his office), about fantasy and reality, but also fantasy and realism. Like Lyra, Holly finds that God exists only in people -- but her journey is entirely in the world as we know it. Or rather: the world that she lives in, of foster homes and care-babes, is one that we might read about in the newspaper and tut-tut over, but most readers are more likely to visit Svalbard than come into contact with it. So it's equally distant, and yet it's right here. Holly Hogan doesn't kill God, or catch a Beguiler or save the world; she doesn't even marry Mr. Rochester. She just gets her own shit together. It's as hard as all the other tasks combined, and it's exciting and page-turning in the telling. She's a classic Lost Girl, a wanderer and speaker in tongues, a ducker and diver, a thinker and thriver.

It's unbearably sad that there will be no more tales of Holly Horgan: not because the novel's a stand-alone, but because of Siobhan O'Dowd's untimely death in 2007. As well as being a compassionate, resilient and intelligent writer, she brought these qualities to her work with English PEN, particularly as founder of the Readers and Writers programme, which reaches out to readers in every corner of society -- bringing Jane Eyre to today's Lost Girls and listening to the stories they have to tell in return.

No comments: